At just five chapters and eighty-nine verses long, the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians is one of the shorter Biblical epistles. However, this brief letter offers a wealth of valuable information on a variety of topics for anyone who is seeking greater spiritual insight from the Scriptures.
The first-century city of Thessalonica was originally known as Thermai, a word that means “Hot Springs.” However, the origin of Thessalonica is perhaps better known for its association with Alexander the Great, the famous military leader. Around 315 B.C. a military general in Alexander’s armed forces named Cassander established a city at Thermai and renamed it after his wife who was Alexander’s half-sister.
Much like the ancient Biblical cities of Ephesus and Corinth, Thessalonica also served as a hub for commercial activity in the Biblical era. For instance, the city featured a good harbor on the gulf of the Aegean Sea near the Mediterranean ocean. That location made it ideal for those who wished to travel by sea or anyone who wanted to send or receive goods by ship.
However, Thessalonica was also located along a major Roman thoroughfare called the Egnatian Way or the Via Egnatia. This ancient highway provided travelers from the capital of Rome with easy access to points east. This roadway, along with the city’s flourishing seaport, helped establish Thessalonica as an important destination for commerce or travel by sea and land.
Because of this, it should not be surprising to learn that Thessalonica featured a highly diverse population. At its peak, ancient Thessalonica likely served as home for over 200,000 people, including Greeks, Romans, Jews, and others from the outer reaches of the Roman Empire and beyond. Thus, the cosmopolitan metropolis of Thessalonica became a wealthy and influential city within the Roman Empire.
Thessalonica eventually grew to become the capital city of Macedonia, a region that encompassed the northern portion of Greece. Thessalonica also enjoyed the status of a “free city” while under Roman rule. This offered a great degree of freedom for the political leaders of Thessalonica and allowed them to establish a local government without the influence of Roman military personnel or other restrictions imposed by the Roman Empire.
Unlike some other cities mentioned in the Bible, the New Testament city of Thessalonica continues to exist today as the modern-day city of Salonika or Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. We’ll continue our survey of ancient Thessalonica with a look at the origin of the church there next.
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We don’t need to look any further than the Biblical book of Acts to discover how the church at Thessalonica got started.
The origin of the church at Thessalonica began when Paul the Apostle visited the city in the course of his second missionary journey, After being “shamefully treated” and released from prison in the town of Philippi, Paul arrived in Thessalonica and taught in the local synagogue there for three consecutive Sabbath days. Acts chapter seventeen tells us that many people who heard Paul speak came to faith in Christ during that period (Acts 17:1-4).
However, God’s message through Paul also resonated with those who were outside the Jewish community. That group included many prominent women of Thessalonica and others who held respect for the God of the Scriptures. 1 Thessalonians 1:9 will later go on to tell us that some members of the church also came to Christ from pagan backgrounds as well.
So the good news of salvation through faith in Christ began to have an impact on the people of the city. Unfortunately, that success also attracted the attention of those who were hostile to Christianity as well as some members of the religious establishment. They responded by employing the services of some local troublemakers in an effort to run Paul and his associates out of town.
Legal charges were soon brought against the new converts and Paul had little choice but to leave Thessalonica for the sake of the new congregation. Although the timeline is open to some discussion, Paul probably had little more than three weeks to establish the church in that area before his work was terminated by those who were opposed to the message of Christ (see Acts 17:5-9).
So Paul and two traveling companions named Silas and Timothy escaped under cover of darkness and found their way to the town of Berea. The Bereans were more open-minded than many of those whom Paul had left behind and they responded to his teaching by checking the Scriptures daily to verify the truth of his message.
Unfortunately, some of Paul’s antagonists from Thessalonica continued their pursuit of him into Berea. That led to another uprising that forced the Apostle to depart for the city of Athens on his own. Paul remained in Athens a short time and then pushed on to Corinth (see Acts 17:10-18:11). Yet even while Paul’s itinerary had taken him to several different cities after his departure from Thessalonica, we’ll soon find that the fate of the Thessalonian Christians still weighed heavily upon his mind.
After moving through the towns of Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens, the New Testament book of Acts tells us that Paul the Apostle found an open door of ministry in the bustling city of Corinth. Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth as he taught the Word of God and worked to establish the church in that area (see Acts 18:1-11).
But prior to his arrival in Corinth, it seems that Paul’s thoughts began to turn to those he left behind in the city of Thessalonica. 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 provides us with a glimpse into Paul’s mindset during that period…
“Therefore, when we could no longer endure it, we thought it good to be left in Athens alone, and sent Timothy, our brother and minister of God, and our fellow laborer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you and encourage you concerning your faith.”
So Paul sent Timothy on a reconnaissance mission to check up on the young church at Thessalonica and encourage their faith. When Timothy subsequently returned to Paul (who had since left Athens and made his way to Corinth), he carried a report that brought great joy to the Apostle. Timothy delivered good news of their faith and love despite the persecution Paul warned they would suffer (see 1 Thessalonians 3:5-7). That report was the catalyst that led Paul to respond by writing the letter we know today as the book of 1 Thessalonians.
Despite this encouraging news from Thessalonica, it appears that some members of the church still had a few gaps in their spiritual knowledge. In light of Paul’s limited residence at Thessalonica, it should therefore come as no surprise to learn that the church took the opportunity of Timothy’s visit to ask him a few questions. The content of Paul’s response indicates that many of those questions involved the afterlife and the return of Christ. Not coincidentally, those are some of the very same questions that many are also asking today.
Finally, we should remember that the Thessalonian epistles are not in chronological order despite their position at the midpoint of the New Testament Scriptures. In fact, 1 and 2 Thessalonians are among the earliest (if not the earliest) of Paul’s New Testament letters and were likely written sometime between the years 50 and 51. These letters thus provide us with a look into Paul’s ministry and the life of the church at a point in time less than twenty years following Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
Unlike some of Paul the Apostle’s other New Testament letters (such as the Biblical epistles to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians, for example), the Thessalonian epistles were not primarily intended to address a doctrinal issue or problem within the church. Instead, these letters address various questions on several different topics. As we “listen in” on Paul’s responses to those questions, we can gain some valuable insight into those subjects.
Many of those questions seem to relate to the subject of Jesus’ return. While chapters four and five cover that topic in great detail, there are references to Jesus’ second advent in every chapter of this epistle. However, two commentators remind us that the book of 1 Thessalonians also addresses several other important topics as well…
“Paul undoubtedly had multiple reasons for writing, all coming out of his supreme concern for the flock from which he had been separated. Some of Paul’s purposes clearly included: 1) encouraging the church (1:2–10); 2) answering false allegations (2:1–12); 3) comforting the persecuted flock (2:13–16); 4) expressing his joy in their faith (2:17–3:13); 5) reminding them of the importance of moral purity (4:1–8); 6) condemning the sluggard lifestyle (4:9–12); 7) correcting a wrong understanding of prophetic events (4:13–5:11); 8) defusing tensions within the flock (5:12–15); and 9) exhorting the flock in the basics of Christian living (5:16–22).” (1)
“Some of the Thessalonians apparently believed that Jesus Christ was about to return momentarily, and had consequently given up their jobs and become disorderly (cf. 4:11; 5:14). Some worried about what had happened to their loved ones who had died before the Lord had returned (4:13, 18). Persecution from the Gentiles—as well as the Jews—still oppressed the believers (2:17—3:10), who were nevertheless holding fast to the truth, and eager to see Paul again (3:6-8). Some of those outside the church, however, remained hostile to Paul (2:1-12). There appears to have been some misuse of spiritual gifts in the assembly, as well as an unfortunate tendency on the part of some to return to their former habits involving sexual impurity (4:1-8; 5:19-21).” (2)
Like many of Paul’s other Biblical letters, we can separate 1 Thessalonians into individual sections. The first section covers chapters one to three and is highly personal. In it, Paul’s deep affection for the Thessalonian church is clearly evident. The second section comprises chapters four and five. In addition to the subject of Jesus’ return, this portion addresses a variety of topics including sexual behavior, interpersonal relationships with those inside and outside the church, and several rapid-fire exhortations to Godly living.
So with this background information in mind, we’ll begin our look at this epistle next.
(1) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) Constable, Thomas. DD. “Notes on 1 Thessalonians 2019 Edition”. “Historical Background” https://www.planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/html/nt/1thessalonians/1thessalonians.htm
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1).
There is an interesting distinction in the way Paul the Apostle began this letter to the church in Thessalonica and the way he began his correspondence with several other first-century churches. Consider the manner in which Paul opened his Biblical letters to the churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Ephesus…
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God…” (1 Corinthians 1:1).
“Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)” (Galatians 1:1).
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God…” (Ephesians 1:1).
Unlike these examples, notice that Paul did not refer to his apostolic status in the opening verse of his letter to the Thessalonians. This omission is conspicuous by its absence and offers some insight into the relationship Paul enjoyed with the members of the Thessalonian church. For example, it’s clear that Paul did not feel the need to defend his authority to the congregation at Thessalonica. Instead, the opening verse of this letter reflects the mutual affection that existed between Paul and the members of the Thessalonian fellowship.
Verse one also references two of Paul’s closest associates: Silvanus and Timothy. Silvanus was a minister who was well-known among the members of the Christian community at Thessalonica. When Paul first visited Thessalonica during his second missionary journey, Silvanus accompanied him to help to establish the church there. Interestingly, it seems that Paul preferred to use the name Silvanus (the Roman form of his name) instead of “Silas” as he is known throughout in the Biblical book of Acts (see Acts 17:1-9).
Like Silvanus, Timothy was another familiar figure to the Thessalonians. Having already been sent by Paul to strengthen and encourage the church in Thessalonica, Paul apparently included Timothy in his greeting to help maintain a sense of continuity. By adding Timothy’s name to the opening verse of this epistle, Paul established a connection between those who worked to build the church (Paul and Silvanus) and those who sought to assist in their growth and development (Timothy).
Paul once used an agricultural illustration to underscore a similar idea in the Biblical letter of 1 Corinthians. Just as some are responsible to plant a crop and others are responsible to water it, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were engaged in complimentary ministries. However, God was the One who was ultimately responsible to ensure their efforts met with success.
“Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace” (1 Thessalonians 1:1 ESV).
There is a phrase that runs like a thread through many of Paul the Apostle’s New Testament letters. That phrase is found in the greeting that opens this Epistle: “Grace to you and peace.” In addition to its appearance here in the book of 1 Thessalonians, this message also appears in Paul’s Biblical letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, as well as his letter to Philemon.
Although this greeting follows the standard format of a typical first-century letter, the significance behind this phrase goes well beyond this simple blessing. For instance, notice that the word grace precedes the word peace here in 1 Thessalonians 1:1. The same is true of the other references mentioned above. This word order is noteworthy when we define these terms in their context.
First, the word “grace” is associated with the unmerited favor that God extends to us in Christ. Romans 5:8 expresses this idea when it tells us, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” 1 John 4:10 also builds on this concept in saying, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (NIV).
Next comes “peace,” a word that implies a general sense of tranquility, contentment, and serenity. It also expresses a sense of reconciliation as reflected in the following definition: “…the tranquil state of a soul assured of its salvation through Christ, and so fearing nothing from God…” (1) Another source associates peace with “…the harmonized relationships between God and man, accomplished through the gospel.” (2).
In light of this, we can say that the ultimate source of grace and peace is “…God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is through Jesus’ sacrificial death that God graciously enables human beings to enter into a relationship with Him. Thus, the unmerited favor that God extends to us in Christ leads to peace with our Creator and peace with others.
When it comes to grace and peace, we can also take comfort in Jesus’ message to His disciples from the New Testament gospel of John…
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
(1) G1515 eirene Thayer’s Greek Lexicon https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=nkjv&strongs=g1515
(2) W. E. Vine W. E. Vine’s New Testament Word Pictures: Romans to Revelation “Peace” p.466
“We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3).
There are some who prefer to take a “middle of the road” approach when it comes to a discussion of spiritual matters. For example, consider the following statement: “Everyone holds different beliefs. It really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in something.” While this philosophy may seem inclusive, there is a problem with this idea if we stop to examine it.
To illustrate that problem, we can look to the various dictators, tyrants, and despots who have come to power throughout the centuries. It is highly unlikely that any reasonable person would say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in something” in evaluating such individuals. When viewed against the backdrop of a dictatorial ruler, the flaw in this ideology becomes clear- our intangible beliefs eventually lead to tangible actions. In the case of a tyrannical leader, the effect of his or her beliefs may negatively impact a region, a country, or even the entire world.
Let’s consider another illustration- the example of a person believes that life ends with the termination of our physical existence. For such individuals, that philosophy is certain to impact the decisions of life in many different ways. On the other hand, a person who believes in an afterlife and expects to give an account to God for his or her life will surely make different choices based on that underlying philosophy.
The two people in this second illustration are likely to follow different paths on the road of life because their internal beliefs guide, influence, and direct their external choices. The same was true of the Christians at Thessalonica as well. 1 Thessalonians 1:3 identifies those internal attitudes and their effect: “…your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (NIV).
So the internal qualities of faith, love, and hope led the members of the Thessalonian congregation to express those attributes in an externally positive manner. In other words, their faith, love and hope showed itself through their work, labor, and endurance. As one source comments, “These phrases denote Christian virtues in action: the work produced by faith, labor motivated by love, and endurance that stems from hope in Christ.’” (1)
(1) Notes taken from the NET Bible® footnotes, copyright © 1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press L.L.C. All rights reserved. Used by permission from www.bible.org . https://netbible.org/bible/1+Thessalonians+1
“We recall, in the presence of our God and Father, your work of faith, labor of love, and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:3 HCSB).
This reference to “…your work of faith” offers a wide range of potential applications for those who are reading this portion of Scripture today. For instance, some may base a “work of faith” on a program, method, or approach. Others may base a work of faith on a talent, skill, or ability. While those things are important, the passage quoted above reminds us that a genuine work of faith should originate in “…in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
You see, a person who bases a work of faith on something other than Christ is likely to discover that methods often fail and skills eventually fade. As Jesus Himself reminded us, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Next, one source associates a “work of faith” with our initial acceptance of Christ…
“Their work of faith probably refers primarily to their conversion to God. This description of faith as a work reminds us of the time some people asked Jesus, ‘What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent’ (Joh_6:28-29). In this sense, faith is an act or deed. But it is not toil by which a man earns merit or in which he can boast.
In fact, it is the only work that man can perform without robbing Christ of His glory as Savior and without denying his own status as a helpless sinner. Faith is a non-meritorious work by which the creature acknowledges his Creator and the sinner acknowledges his Savior. The expression work of faith also includes the life of faith which follows conversion.” (1)
Finally, another commentator applies this concept to the arena of secular employment…
“There is work which is inspired by faith. Nothing tells us more about a man than the way in which he works. He may work in fear of the whip; he may work for hope of gain; he may work from a grim sense of duty; or he may work inspired by faith. His faith is that this is his task given him by God and that he is working in the last analysis not for men but for God. Someone has said that the sign of true consecration is when a man can find glory in drudgery.” (2)
(1) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (p.2023) Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers
(2) Barclay, William. “Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 1:4”. “William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible”. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/1-thessalonians-1.html. 1956-1959.
“remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labor of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father” (1 Thessalonians 1:3).
The second element given to us here in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 is the “labor of love” that served to identify the Christian community in the city of Thessalonica. A “labor of love” differs from a traditional form of work in one important respect: a labor of love often reflects an internal desire to bless or help someone else.
Although a labor of love may involve a great deal of effort, the return on that investment encompasses something far greater than a paycheck. As one source observes, “Love for Christ draws forth service that the dollar could never inspire. The Thessalonians were living testimonies to this fact.” (1)
While this passage does not provide us with enough detail to positively identify this particular labor of love, perhaps that is by design. You see, a true labor of love is often unique to a group or individual. For some, a labor of love might represent their life’s work. For others, it may involve meeting a specific need at a particular point in time. Then there are those who earn a salary that helps support their labor of love.
Therefore, this detail is not very important from an application perspective. The real question in this: how should we apply this idea today? For instance, there are several questions that can help us identify our personal labor of love…
- What work would I perform even if I wasn’t paid for it?
- What God-given skills, talents, abilities, or opportunities do I possess?
- What do I “see” that others don’t?
- What burdens me?
- What energizes or inspires me?
- What needs to be done (or what needs to be done better)?
- What would I do even if no one noticed or gave me credit for it?
The answers to these questions can help us uncover a true labor of love for our lives.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that a hobby, pastime, or recreational interest may also reflect a labor of love. While such things offer a valuable respite from the pressures and demands of life, we should remember that a hobby is often temporal in nature. On the other hand, a labor of love that invests in the spiritual welfare of others provides an eternal benefit that is virtually incalculable. A person who prayerfully finds a way to channel his or her interests into a ministry opportunity that honors God and benefits others will surely reap eternal rewards.
(1) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (p.2023) Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers
“knowing, beloved brethren, your election by God” (1 Thessalonians 1:4).
1 Thessalonians 1:4 is a brief passage that undoubtedly served to reassure the original recipients of this letter. The knowledge that they were loved and chosen by God must have served as a comfort and blessing to these members of the Thessalonian church. Nevertheless, this verse also presents us with doctrine that has arguably led to more discussion and debate than any other throughout the centuries: the doctrine of election.
The challenge in approaching this subject arises from the apparent conflict that exists between God’s sovereignty in choosing (or electing) individual human beings for salvation and human responsibility in accepting or rejecting Him. We can turn to the following sources for some helpful insight into this topic beginning with a definition of the term “election”…
“The doctrine of election teaches that God chose certain people in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph_1:4). It does not teach that He chose some to be damned. If men are finally lost, it is because of their own sin and unbelief. The same Bible that teaches election also teaches human responsibility or man’s free choice. God makes a bona fide offer of salvation to all people everywhere. Whoever comes to Christ will find a warm welcome.
These two doctrines, election and freedom of choice, create an irreconcilable conflict in the human mind. But the Bible teaches both and so we should believe both even if we can’t harmonize them.” (1)
Another commentary provide us with Biblical references to support the doctrines of divine election and human responsibility while acknowledging the difficulty in reconciling them…
“The proof of God’s love for the Thessalonians was His choice of them unto salvation. From the word translated chosen (ekloge) comes the English ‘election.’ That God has chosen to bless some individuals with eternal life is clearly taught in many places in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Deu_4:37; Deu_7:6-7; Isa_44:1-2; Rom_9:1-33; Eph_1:4-6, Eph_1:11; Col_3:12; 2Th_2:13).
Equally clear is the fact that God holds each individual personally responsible for his decision to trust or not to trust in Jesus Christ (cf. Joh_3:1-36; Rom_5:1-21). The difficulty in putting divine election and human responsibility together is understanding how both can be true. That both are true is taught in the Bible. How both can be true is apparently incomprehensible to finite human minds; no one has ever been able to explain this antinomy satisfactorily.” (2)
We’ll continue our look at this important subject with a focus upon the tension that exists between divine sovereignty and human responsibility next.
(1) William Macdonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary (p.2024) Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers
(2) Bible Knowledge Commentary, note on 1 Thessalonians 1:4 pg. 691
“We know, dear brothers and sisters, that God loves you and has chosen you to be his own people” (1 Thessalonians 1:4 NLT).
While the doctrine of election is a challenging subject, perhaps we might benefit from a change of perspective. What if we viewed divine election and human responsibility as “both/and” and not an “either/or” proposition? One scholar explains…
“God’s determination and human freedom are not necessarily an either/or situation; they can be a both/and situation. There are a number of ways a theist might reconcile the two. He might contend that God has determined that men be free. He may contend that God controls the world by what he knows men will freely do. Knowing what men will do with their freedom is not the same as ordaining what they must do against their freedom. The latter would seem to be incompatible with a loving God, but the former would appear to follow naturally from such a God.
If love is persuasive but never coercive, then allowing men to freely determine their own destiny would seem to be the loving way to make them. Hence, a theist could argue that the love of God necessitates that if he decides to create creatures that can love him, then they must be free; it is of the very necessary nature of love that other persons be able to respond freely to it. In this way both God and man would be responsible for free acts…
The theist may argue that if man is free, then he is responsible; if he has been given freedom, then he is responsible to the One who gave him freedom. In this account God is ultimately responsible for the fact of freedom (which is a good thing) but not immediately responsible for the acts of freedom (which may be evil). Both God and men take their separate responsibilities for freedom.” (1)
We’ll close our look at this subject with an illustration attributed to H.A. Ironside. That illustration begins as follows: Imagine you encounter a door with the following sign: “Whosoever will may enter.” You may accept or decline the invitation and choose to go in. Upon entering, you are surprised to find a banquet with a place set aside for you as an expected guest. As you turn to look at the door you entered, you find that the inside of the door is marked with a different sign: “Foreordained from the foundation of the world.”
This illustration offers one means of addressing the polarization between divine election and human responsibility: “God’s determination and human freedom are not necessarily an either/or situation; they can be a both/and situation.”
(1) Geisler, N. L. (1976). Christian apologetics (p. 231). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
“For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
The word “gospel” is a word that is well-known but not necessarily well-defined. You see, the word “gospel” finds it’s origin in the ancient Greek word euaggelion, a word that refers to “glad tidings” or “good news.” Over time, this word began to be associated with the “good news” that human beings can escape eternal separation from God and enter a relationship with their Creator through grace by faith in Christ.
This means “the gospel” is more than just an abstract idea, a style of music, or a distinctive form of preaching. Instead, the gospel is something to accept and act upon. Consider the following quote from the famous 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon…
“Do not let any one among us look back to a certain day and say, ‘On that occasion I was regenerated and converted, and that is enough.’ I fear that some of you get into a very bad condition by saying, ‘If I can prove that I was converted on such a day that will do.’ This is altogether unjustifiable talk. Conversion is a turning into the right road; the next thing is to walk in it… To start in the race is nothing, many have done that who have failed; but to hold out till you reach the winning post is the great point of the matter.” (1)
For their part, Paul the Apostle and his traveling companions made certain to ensure their conduct reflected well upon the gospel of Christ. Their example reminds us that people often judge Christ and the God of the Scriptures by those who claim to represent Him. Like them, our God-honoring conduct can help secure the right to be taken seriously as we engage in spiritual discussions with others.
Paul will go on to document a few of those Godly characteristics in the next chapter of 1 Thessalonians. But for now, Paul’s exhortation to the church at Philippi serves to remind us of the need to exhibit God-honoring character in our relationships with others…
“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27 NIV).
(1) Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Life’s Need and Maintenance Sermon No. 1300 Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Volume 22, Jun 18, 1876 https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/lifes-need-and-maintenance#flipbook/
“And you became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything” (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8).
Macedonia was a regional area in the northern portion of Greece while Achaia was located to the south. Those who are familiar with the New Testament Scriptures may recognize the names of several congregations that met in the cities of Macedonia, including Philippi and Berea as well as Thessalonica. Two of the better-known Biblical cities in Achaia were Corinth (through its association with the New Testament letters of 1 and 2 Corinthians) and Athens.
Given the size of these areas and the limits of first-century communication, it is remarkable to see the impact that the Christians of Thessalonica had upon those who lived beyond their boundaries. This undoubtedly provided a great deal of satisfaction for Paul the Apostle as evidenced by the following comment: “…wherever we go we find people telling us about your remarkable faith in God. We don’t need to tell them about it, for they keep telling us…” (1 Thessalonians 1:8-9 TLB).
In this, the members of the Thessalonian church community provide us with a good example to follow. Much like the work of an engraver upon the surface of a precious metal, the example of our lives often leaves an impression upon others. For instance, that impact might extend to friends, co-workers, family members, business associates, online acquaintances, and even those who are outside our direct circle of influence. In today’s era of high speed internet access, that same influence might extend well beyond traditional geographic boundaries to include thousands (or millions) of others.
Much like these members of the church at Thessalonica, every man or woman of God serves as an example to others. The question is, what kind of example do we offer? In the words of one commentary…
“Paul saw the Thessalonians as amplifiers or relay stations that not only received the gospel message but sent it farther on its way with increased power and scope. Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica had the effect of speaking into a public address microphone; his words were received and repeated by many different “speakers” in many remote places where his unaided voice could not have reached.” (1)
(1) Bible Knowledge Commentary, note on 1 Thessalonians 1:8 pg. 692
“For they themselves declare concerning us what manner of entry we had to you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
The cultural sophistication and technological advances of our modern-day world often make it easy to dismiss those who worshiped inanimate objects in the Old and New Testaments. While we may laugh at the foolishness of those who bowed down to a piece of stone or wood in the Biblical era, we should remember that an “idol” doesn’t have to be constructed from wood, stone, or metal.
You see, an “idol” can be anything that we love, fear, or depend on more than God. Once something has become more important than God in our life, that thing (whatever it is), essentially becomes our “god.” For instance, there are modern-day examples of those who have crafted an idol from a physical possession, a financial asset, or a person. In this respect, an “idol” can represent anything that takes God’s place in our lives.
While the members of the Thessalonian church might have partaken of such idolatry in their past, Paul the Apostle was pleased to acknowledge that they now served “…the living and true God.” We should take careful note of the wording used to describe that process here in 1 Thessalonians 1:9: “…you turned to God from idols.” While other words like reject, dismiss, or renounce might have been used to describe their new attitude towards idolatry, this verse tells us that the Thessalonians “turned to” God instead. This may seem inconsequential until we stop to consider it more closely.
Here’s why: if a person is standing directly between two objects, it is physically impossible to face both of them at the same time. A person who is facing one object must turn his or her back to the other. This presents us with an effective word-picture as well as a self-evident application: if we desire to turn to God, we must, by necessity, turn our backs to any form of idolatry.
Although its possible to return and embrace something that we previously renounced, a person who genuinely turns to God through Christ is someone who has also turned his or her back on idolatry in all its forms. As one source observes, “All of us should respond to the Good News as the Thessalonians did: Turn to God, serve God, and look forward to the return of his Son, Christ, from heaven.” (1)
(1) Life Application Study Bible NKJV [1 Thessalonians 1:9] Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers
“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
“…you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” (1)
When used in the context of 1 Thessalonians 1:9, the word “serve” is associated with the following definition: to obey, submit to, or to yield obedience. (2) While there may be those who feel as if they are not in submission to anyone, that is not entirely accurate. You see, everyone serves a master whether or not they realize it.
To illustrate this reality, let’s revisit the concept of idolatry from earlier in this chapter. Once something has become more important than God in our lives, that thing (whatever it is), essentially becomes our “god.” With this in mind, we can say that there is a common denominator that often defines those who seek to displace their Creator from His rightful place of authority in their lives. When people attempt to replace God with something else on the priority scale of life, they typically replace Him with themselves.
For instance, this mentality is often reflected in an attitude that says, “I do whatever is best (or whatever works) for me.” In this manner, we prioritize the fulfillment of our wants, needs, desires, and interests as we perceive them and demote our Creator to second place status (or worse). Unfortunately, those who adopt that kind of self-serving mindset often fail to recognize it even though it may be painfully obvious to others.
This attitude also runs counter to the counsel given to us in Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He shall direct your paths.” However, those who “…serve the living and true God” and follow the tenets of the Scriptures benefit themselves and others as well. For example…
“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4 NIV).
“When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow” (Romans 12:15 TLB).
“Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:24 NIV).
So while we may have the ability to choose our master, a “no master” option is unavailable to us. In other words, “…you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
(1) Bob Dylan, Gotta Serve Somebody Copyright © 1979 by Special Rider Music
(2) G1398 douleuo Thayer’s Greek Lexicon https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g1398
“and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
1 Thessalonians 1:9 offered two distinguishing characteristics that serve to identify a God-honoring life. Those characteristics involve turning away from idolatry and serving the one true God. A third characteristic of an authentic Christian life is now given to us here in verse ten: “…to wait for His Son from heaven.” This passage describes a person who lives in anticipation of Jesus’ second advent, or the return of Christ in association with the culmination of this age.
The New Testament book of Hebrews expands on this thought with the following message: “…Christ died only once as an offering for the sins of many people; and he will come again, but not to deal again with our sins. This time he will come bringing salvation to all those who are eagerly and patiently waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 TLB).
Of course, there are many who dismiss the idea of Jesus’ return in light of the time that has passed since His crucifixion and resurrection. The Biblical book of 2 Peter addresses that mindset with the following prophetic observance: “…scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation’” (2 Peter 3:3-4).
Then there are others who sincerely find it difficult to understand why centuries have elapsed between Jesus’ first and second advent. To address that question, we can move forward a few verses in the book of 2 Peter to the following statement: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NIV).
While it may seem as if an inordinate amount of time has passed in light of Jesus’ promised return, we can be sure that there is a good reason for any apparent delay. That reason appears to be related to God’s patience in waiting for those who will come to repentance in these intervening generations. But those who choose to disregard the Scriptural teachings related to the return of Christ would be ill-advised to ignore them. We’ll conclude our look at 1 Thessalonians chapter one with a parable from Jesus that offers a warning for those who might be tempted to ignore the Biblical teachings related to His return.
“and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10 ESV).
In contrast to those who choose to disregard the Biblical teachings related to Jesus’ second advent, it’s important to live in anticipation of His return. Whether Christ returns for someone at the end of his or her life (whenever that may be) or whether He returns to begin a new chapter of history, our responsibility is to be ready when He appears.
Consider this warning from Jesus in the form of the following parable…
“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night.
But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
Peter asked, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?’ The Lord answered, ‘Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions.
But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:35-46 NIV).
This parable thus illustrates the importance of living with the expectation of Christ’s return. We’ll talk more about what that means as we move into 1 Thessalonians chapter two.